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January 01 2011

A fine pear

Tacita Dean has been unveiled as the next artist to exhibit in the Tate Modern turbine hall. Her current show and recent films – about decay, beauty and nostalgia – mark her out as one of the best of her generation argues Brian Dillon

At 11 minutes long, Tacita Dean's film Prisoner Pair (showing at the Common Guild gallery in Glasgow) is a svelte précis of certain tendencies in the English artist's haunting and haunted oeuvre. In 2008 Dean was commissioned to make a work in or about the historically contested region of Alsace-Lorraine, and she responded with a type of still life: a close-up study of two bottled pears suspended in schnapps and subtly decaying in sunlight. The film's title depends on an obvious pun but also on the name, poire prisonnière, given to such novelty liquors as are still produced in Alsace, parts of Switzerland and the Black Forest. The work itself is an intimate and almost whimsical portrait of two bodies (two territories of sorts) that rhyme with or mirror one another and seethe quietly with life even as they're immured behind glassy frontiers.

Like much of Dean's art, Prisoner Pair broaches vast topics – nature, history, decay and the seductions of nostalgia – with apparently modest means: the simple passage of light across the surfaces of things. Born in 1965 in Canterbury and educated at Falmouth and the Slade, she has since the early 1990s been making work (notably in film) that stands out among her generation of British artists for its formal elegance and emotional poise. If Prisoner Pair is not immediately of a piece with her longer films, which often place human figures in resonant landscapes and historically charged architectural settings, that's partly a matter of productive mistiming. Dean had originally hoped to film the harvesting of the pears in Alsace – their buds are bottled on the tree and the fruit grown inside – but, having missed her moment, focused instead on the textures of the finished product. The result is a film that is all light and flesh and minute drifting particles.

Other contemporary artists have produced film or video updates of the traditional nature morte – Sam Taylor-Wood's Still Life of 2001 offers an accelerated view of a decaying bowl of fruit, for example. And Dean has made films before that look intently at objects and surfaces; her Darmstädter Werkblock of 2007 documents the walls and carpets around a permanent installation by Joseph Beuys. Prisoner Pair is not so much a consciously painterly move (for one thing, the film is shot from several different vantages) as an exploration of the metaphoric potential of its subject. At times the mottled pears resemble ageing, maybe dead, flesh, looking as if they're entombed or in suspended animation. (Dean buried the bottles first for added patina, so that the glass itself seems subject to some dark organic process.) From other angles they look like planets – quite specifically, the mysterious milky world in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film Solaris – that now and then erupt with small puffs of fermentation. Still, in spite of the meanings and references that might attach to these tender, ghostly twins, it is mostly the light you notice as it agitates the fruit inside with its flickering or burnishes the glass with a golden glow. (There are many golden glows in Dean's films. As Rex Harrison says in Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1967 movie The Honey Pot, gold is the colour of time.)

Had Dean managed to film the Alsatian pear harvest, it might have looked something like an especially entrancing passage from Michael Hamburger, the 2007 film with which she acknowledges Prisoner Pair has some affinities. In the earlier work, Dean filmed the poet and translator at his home in Suffolk, a year before he died. (The piece was commissioned in part as a response to WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn – in that book, Sebald's narrator travels to the home of his friend Hamburger, whose life, uncannily, he feels he has himself lived.) Michael Hamburger is filled with typical Dean motifs – the textures of old walls and old hands, lingering shots from inside windows, half-open doorways that give on to brightly lit and empty rooms – but it slowly organises itself around its subject's relationship with his orchard. We see Hamburger naming and caressing the species among his windfalls, recalling an enthusiasm shared with Ted Hughes, plucking apples from his trees while late flowers nod and lazy insects buzz around him in the dog days.

All of which ought to confirm that Dean risks a formal beauty and deploys a melancholy palette that in her case easily cohabits with irony, rigour and complexity. The art critic Jörg Heiser has floated the term "romantic conceptualism" to describe what an artist such as Dean does, with her knowingly oblique and sometimes subtly frustrating approach to her subject matter, and her commitment to the beautiful way she frames it. Her continued use of 16mm film, instead of the high-definition video that is everywhere now among artists who work with the moving image, is essential to the way her works are made and shown: the whirring, hot projector is often a semi-sculptural presence in the gallery. This too leaves her open to accusations of aesthetic nostalgia, but after nearly two decades of making films Dean is presumably past caring; the rhythms of shooting, processing, laborious sound design and film editing (done by Dean herself on an old Steenbeck at her Berlin studio) are part of an artistic practice that has a relentless coherence.

That said, much of her recent work seems to be about age, decay, loss and nostalgia in more straightforward ways than her early films would openly admit. Or rather, the timescales being canvassed were on the face of it more devious and odd in the works made a decade or so ago. Consider a film such as Fernsehturm from 2001, filmed at the revolving restaurant atop a 1960s TV tower that she had first visited on a trip to East Berlin in 1986. Like several of the artist's other subjects – Berlin's now-demolished Palace of the Republic, the pre-radar "sound mirrors" at Dungeness, Robert Smithson's drowned and resurgent sculpture Spiral Jetty on the shore of the Great Salt Lake – the tower embodies past and future at the same time. A good deal of Dean's art mines this sense of a future anterior, of technological, utopian or artistic dreams that have gone to ground only to surface again as relics of a time to come that we can no longer imagine.

In one sense, the series of meditative film portraits that Dean has been making in the last decade – of which the vegetal memento mori of Prisoner Pair is in a way a peculiar offshoot – expresses a much simpler chronology of decline or passing. (The same might be said of Kodak from 2006, a work of frank mourning for which she filmed a Kodak factory in France with some of the last-manufactured reels of the company's black-and-white 16mm film.) For some time she has been engaged in a sort of aesthetic romance with the image of an artist or storyteller near the end of his life – in an interview with Marina Warner in 2006, she joked that she had developed "a thing about old men". Among the earliest examples was Boots (2003), a three-screen film installation that follows the aged character of the title (a family friend of the Deans, so named for his orthopaedic footwear) around an empty art deco villa in Portugal. Boots tells stories as he goes about what might have gone on in the house, reminisces about his affair with a woman named Blanche, and muses that the place seems to have drifted off into another time. It turns out that this portrait of melancholy recall is really no such thing – the old man is inventing (or maybe half inventing) history as he limps between the sunlit rooms, projecting us into a time that never was.

Boots had been preceded the year before by Mario Merz, a study of the Italian artist sitting beneath a tree in summer heat and contemplating his own mortality. (Merz did in fact die not long after the film was made.) In 2004 Dean made The Uncles, in which two of her elderly uncles recalled their fathers: Basil Dean and Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios. And in 2005 she completed Presentation Sisters at a convent in Cork: a muted collective portrait of the few nuns left and the domestic rituals with which they filled the days. But the best of these portrait films are surely the two works Dean made with Merce Cunningham in the last years of the choreographer's life. The first, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33'' with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), is a still life of sorts. It shows the frail but poised Cunningham seated in a chair in a dance rehearsal space, performing static interpretations of Cage's famously silent work.

The second, Craneway Event (2009), is among Dean's most dynamic and spatially ambitious films. It records three days of rehearsals by Cunningham's dance company at a disused Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California. (Cunningham had originally asked Dean to document the resulting performance, but she preferred the unpredictable rehearsal and its lack of music.) This is a film about movement: the 14 dancers careering between three sprung stages, the way a pelican flexes its wings in San Francisco Bay, the stately passage of ships past the building's huge windows. But at the centre of all this energy is the still point of Cunningham himself: aged 89, conserving his energy and restricted to his wheelchair, but entirely focused on the dancers and the possibilities of the space. Dean's portrait of him is all about timing, about Cunningham's knowing when to give himself up to fatigue, when to urge his young dancers to work as hard as he does or to trundle himself out of shot when he gets bored.

It's into this lineage of portraiture, strangely, that we ought to fit Prisoner Pair. Because quite apart from the dazzling array of textures and light effects that Dean manages to tease from a macro lens and a couple of muddy schnapps bottles in a London garden in summer, and bearing in mind the pears' ripe and fleshy reminder of vulnerable bodies, this is a film about concentration (ours and the artist's) and about survival. The trapped pears are fragile living things consigned to a sweet and potent afterlife, caught behind glass like museum specimens but still redolent of all the time between their budding and their maturity. In that sense they resemble Dean's aged portrait subjects, but also in this: watching them, the greatest mystery for the viewer is how the artist has managed to imprison them in the first place and turn greying flesh into filmic gold.

Tacita Dean is at the Common Guild, 21 Woodlands Terrace, Glasgow G3 until 5 February. Tel: 0141 428 3022. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 08 2010

Tacita Dean: Craneway Event

Frith Street, London W1

There are not many living artists whose every new work you would always want to see, but Tacita Dean is high on that list. At 45, she is the great poet of art film. Over the years, she has turned her deep and elegiac vision to some of the grandest of dramas – storms, shipwrecks, total solar eclipse – and some of the smallest, from the passage of diurnal light through a restaurant to the faint breeze that transforms a lake from still landscape to moving picture. Not for nothing has she been variously compared to Terence Davies, Walt Whitman and Edward Hopper.

Lately, though, Dean has turned more to the art of the portrait. It suits her origins as a painter. And she has found a way of transforming the single, condensed image that a painter might make over many sittings and long scrutiny by spooling time through a sequence of nearly motionless images.

Her studies of the Italian sculptor Mario Merz and the poet (and translator of WG Sebald) Michael Hamburger are classics of empathetically patient observation. In each, she finds elements of the man in oblique or ephemeral details. The overgrown house, the volatile wind and the sudden arrival of a rainbow, in Hamburger's case, brought this complex man into clearer view.

Now Dean has made an immensely beautiful portrait of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. It is a perfect collaboration between two kinds of creator. But so strong is the affinity between them that one soon begins to see that they are intent upon the same thing: man's brief walk (or dance) in the sun.

Craneway Event was filmed on 16mm in late 2008, as Cunningham rehearses his dancers in the disused Ford assembly plant on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. Craneway refers to the purpose of this grand canyon of a building, with its full-length windows and vast doors opening on to the quay outside. Event is Cunningham's term for a 100-minute anthology of pieces from the company's repertoire. And this is what Dean appears to give you at first: almost two hours of the master at work, the dancers practising against a backdrop of passing ships and the distant hilltops of Marin County.

But everything runs against expectation. The film opens with a pelican on the quay steadfastly waiting for the best moment to lift into flight. Inside, technicians are laboriously peeling gaffer tape from the floor. The dancers are pacing round the hall, a parade of earthbound figures apparently whiling away time. Cunningham's quiet arrival, a black-clad figure in a wheelchair, scarcely alters the picture.

Anyone familiar with Dean's work will know that the rehearsal itself is not likely to be the main event. Rather, she notices the totality of the scene: the grids of the windows like hundreds of picture frames on the landscape beyond, the cavernous space, the liquid sheen of the floor with its ever-changing reflections. Her cameras drink in the sunshine. Occasionally, a dancer slides into shot, or a ship glides past, but it gradually becomes apparent that these are Cunningham's preoccupations, too, precisely what inspire the wonderful abstractions of his choreography.

The dancers move like creatures and objects as much as people. One may be executing a slow circle with his toe, bent arms rotating like propellers, head delicately craned like a bird. Another raises an elegant arm, describing the sail of a yacht. Four together take on the rhythms of an assembly line smoothly alternating with a square dance. A pas de deux becomes an aerial gantry.

All of this occurs without music. The only sounds are of creak, footfall and soft-shoe shuffle, occasionally broken by Cunningham's mellifluous voice, suggesting a slightly different orientation in space. He appears to view the dance like a painter, holding his pen like a brush, yet he is also within it. The movements all seem to flow through and from him.

Dean shows him at a distance, framed by his dancers, or watchfully close, the tendrils of his hair illuminated like a Rembrandt etching. Approaching 90, he still looks forever young and graceful, presiding over the scene like a pensive angel. In one shot, the handles of his chair at shoulder height appear ever so briefly like wings.

A pigeon arrives, appearing to swim in the reflective floor. A man in a stetson ambles along the boardwalk. A great ship passes with such magnificent grace that one can hardly help but think of Cunningham himself, wheeling slowly out of the frame. He died during the editing process; the film becomes both portrait and homage.

Cunningham watches and guides with transcendent concentration; so does Dean, whose camera positions are never as anticipated. Both orchestrate movement in mysterious ways. And like Cunningham, Dean is fascinated by the structure of motion and time; her film is, in a sense, open-ended.

The long day closes, another begins. Light passes through the celluloid as shiftingly as the sun through the high windows. And eventually the viewer, having nearly rebelled at the slowness of both artists' pace, becomes entranced – calm and poised as the figures on screen, mesmerised by their movements through glowing space.

Dean's work is screened too infrequently in this country. Tate Britain owns many of her best films, including Disappearance at Sea and Michael Hamburger, but they are not on permanent display. Occasionally, you catch a work in a mixed show, but it is almost 10 years since her last major exhibition and 12 since she was shortlisted for the Turner prize.

I have no idea why she has never won the prize, since she is one of the most intelligent, profound and inventive artists of her generation. This film (and her enthralling study of nuns in a Cork convent, grace incarnate, shown at the Edinburgh festival last August) could have put her on this year's very strong list. Still, as Cunningham says in his serenely encouraging way, there is always time again tomorrow. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 27 2010

Merce Cunningham's last dance

In 2008, choreographer Merce Cunningham took his troupe to an old car plant in California. There, he made a film with Tacita Dean that he didn't live to see. She relives three extraordinary days

Merce Cunningham died before I finished cutting my film, Craneway Event. The idea had been to present it alongside his 90th birthday celebrations on 16 April last year, when he was due to premiere Nearly Ninety, his most recent – and now final – choreographed work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But the film was too big a project and I realised I needed more time, so I postponed the screening until November. Until mid-July, I was corresponding with Merce's dance company, confirming possible dates. I was told he was dealing with the ageing process in a very robust way, although I thought he looked substantially thinner in the photographs I had seen of him taking his final bow after Nearly Ninety. Less than a fortnight later, on 26 July, I got a terrible shock when I learned he had died.

Merce was a trouper who, despite his age and the crumbling bones that put him in a wheelchair, never stopped working. He continued to create new pieces, and when he was in town never missed class in his studio on the 11th floor of Bethune Street, on Manhattan's Lower West Side. So much so that when he failed to show up the week before he died, the news rippled through the dance community as far as Europe – a sure sign that something was wrong. Merce left life with the same grace with which he lived it, finding time to say goodbye to every one of his company and many friends besides.

I met him for the first time in April 2007. As part of that year's Manchester international festival project, Il Tempo del Postino, artists were given a short slot to make something for the stage; I decided I wanted to introduce a moment of silence in what I could see was shaping up to be a cacophonous lineup. I proposed inviting Merce to perform to a piece by John Cage, his long-term partner and collaborator: the silent composition 4' 33". Merce was no longer appearing in front of the camera, but he enjoyed the challenge of this invitation and accepted.

What he did was more elegant and poised than anything I could have hoped for: he simply held his pose, shifting position for each of the three movements in Cage's composition. His company director, Trevor Carlson, timed him, counting down the end of each movement by holding up his hand, which Merce saw in his peripheral vision. We did six takes, and I realised they were in fact the first six performances of a new work. He named it Stillness, to which I added the parenthesis "in three movements"; the following year I showed all six films as one installation in the cavernous basement of a gallery in upstate New York. Merce came to the opening, as did Jasper Johns; it was also the day of Robert Rauschenberg's funeral – a strange reuniting of artists, even in absentia, who were once so strongly linked.

Merce's company had been invited to perform in Berkeley on the west coast. Merce and Trevor were shown a building called the Craneway Pavilion, an enormous former Ford assembly plant in Richmond, California, as a possible venue for one of Merce's "events". He created these by restaging and combining parts of his repertoire for non-theatrical spaces, and latterly had begun using more than one stage. The factory inspired and excited both men, and they asked me whether I would like to be involved.

Merce had a long history of collaborating with artists and film-makers: most famously Rauschenberg, who worked on early sets and costumes, and Charles Atlas, who filmed dances especially made for the camera. I wanted to have access to Merce's rehearsal period. Apart from giving me the chance to study him at close quarters, it would allow the dancers to wear their own clothes and me to film them with ambient sound rather than music (which, in the Cunningham/Cage tradition, the dancers often heard for the first time during a performance).

In May 2008 I flew to San Francisco with Trevor and looked at the building. Albert Kahn had designed it in 1930, with floor-to-ceiling glass to maximise daylight. The Craneway Pavilion was the point where the cars, and later tanks, were craned on to waiting ships. The factory rapidly expanded during the war, becoming identified with a large female workforce and the American tradition of "Rosie the Riveter". The port was still a working shipyard, and huge trawlers passed silently into the bay while pelicans swooped in their wake. Pigeons flew in and out, and as dusk fell, the lights of the Bay bridge twinkled from afar. Merce loved birds and painted pictures of them every morning. It became clear that this project had to happen, and, although there were financial hurdles, we started filming on 4 November 2008, the day of the presidential elections, which we all celebrated together in the hotel: Obama became Merce's 17th president.

The day before had been wet. Merce turned up in a hat and coat, pushed by Trevor, to decide how to position the three stages in the space, and where to lay the carpet running between them. Merce blamed his crumbling bones on having danced for years on cement floors; now, he always insisted on sprung stages for his company. Visibility was miserably low – typical seasonal weather. The following days were glorious, though. The dancers would arrive and begin warming up, and then Merce would enter. We had three days to film, and I asked everyone to wear the same clothes each day. My hope was to edit the film as if it were one afternoon, but in the end I kept it as three separate days; each had its own character and light temperature. Also, Merce wore a maroon fleece on day two – a continuity error I failed to notice.

Merce worked from a typed sheet of A4, which laid out the event: a column for each of the three stages, where his 14 dancers simultaneously interwove 14 extracts or pieces from his repertoire, finding their rhythm by counting. No dancer was tied to any one stage for any length of time, moving along the carpet corridors between them, until all three stages suddenly climaxed together. Merce watched a run-through, and afterwards gathered the dancers around him. He went through every section telling each dancer which direction to face. He saw the dance pictorially, much as a painter does, but balanced it through time and space rather than in a two-dimensional plane. Nothing was habitual; everything appeared fresh. The dance still came from and through him.

He was on exceptionally fine form, alive to everything and defying fatigue. He was excited by the location, with its changing light and the colossal ships on their way out to sea. At the end of each day he would ask me: had I got that boat, that bird, the light on that dancer? And I'd reply that I'd got it all. After he died, and I was left with the daunting responsibility of working through the 17 hours of footage, alone in Berlin, I took great comfort from listening to him chuckle with delight and sing to himself with the pleasure of it all. Watching him in the cutting room, I still had access to this wonderful man; once I had finished the film I missed him greatly. He had enormous confidence and trust in the process, and I have come to feel that Merce somehow understood that the building, the dancers, birds, light and ships would not fail him in his absence. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 09 2009

Notes on an art crisis

This recession will bring a sea change in the way we look at, write about, and make art. Adrian Searle reveals what he's looking forward to

Two weeks ago, I went to an evening in New York in honour of the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died earlier this year. Three spaces had been cleared on the enormous floor of the drill hall in the Park Avenue Armory. On each stage, something different was happening; except it was all the same thing, that thing that Merce and his company did.

A lone man strode through air as thick as cement. Other dancers came together and moved apart, grouping and splintering and spiralling off. Elsewhere, dancers worked the space in worlds of their own. There was a form to all of it, but in the moment of performance it was ungraspable. Things were in constant motion, like overlapping ripples on a rainy pond. It was mesmerising – and hard to know where to look and who to follow.

The dancers were members of the current Cunningham troupe, as well as dancers who had worked with the choreographer all the way back to the 1960s. There were schoolkids dancing. Music clamoured and drifted overhead, and the echoing acoustic felt just right. There was the silence of John Cage's 4'33", a calm moment, and then we moved on. I meant to stay an hour, and remained for almost four. Sometimes I'd find myself taking respite beside a stage void of dancers, a visual equivalent to Cage's silent work, finding myself looking at the clear patch of floor as if it might tell me something. I bumped into a few friends, but we mostly kept our distance, not wanting to break one another's mood. As well as watching, there was space and time to reflect. The best art always returns you to yourself.

A part of me wanted to keep this experience to myself and not write about it. When it was over, I walked into the evening with a kind of aimless purpose – almost tearful, though it's hard to say exactly why. The experience was complicated, a relationship between setting and dance, music and acoustics, the occasion itself and everyday life beyond.

I had gone to New York after speaking in Toronto, in a series of panels and lectures on the current state of art in the economic downturn. The art world is in crisis. First there was too much money; now there isn't enough. Newspapers and print media are in crisis. Theory is in crisis (does anyone have time to do more than look at the pictures in magazines nowadays?). Curating is in crisis. The professional critic is in crisis (they are dropping like flies in north America). Artists – well, they're always in crisis, drama queens that they are.

But crisis is good. Crisis is sexy. Crisis shakes you up. And if it changes our habits when it comes to looking at art, reading about it, or even making it, then that's probably good, too. Artists, if they're any good, are engaged in a war against habit, complacency and indifference.

Puffs, gossip and beastliness

Change is good. But pick up a British newspaper, and you would think it was still 1995. It's the same old same old: here comes Tracey; there goes Damien. And isn't that that transvestite bloke, the one who does those pots? It's not the earnest reviews and analysis that count, the ones that say time's up and let's move on – the articles I spend long nights worrying over, however urgent they may seem. The stories that count are

the personality puffs, the bits of gossip about who Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor-Wood are currently shagging or in the process of de-shagging or un-shagging and what Tracey did next that get the juices flowing. Sex and money, beauty and beastliness, and little Damien are what count: he's painting again, haven't you heard? Watching Cunningham's dancers, all this seemed very parochial and very far away.

Conceptual art began with Marcel Duchamp's witty and iconoclastic questioning of the status of the art object, in relation to other kinds of manufactured items: bicycle wheels, snow shovels, that famous urinal. He questioned what art was and what it might become in the post-industrial future. In the 1960s, conceptual art became an art of ideas, statements, theoretical drolleries and jokes.

Nowadays, there is a mistaken assumption that all sorts of current art works belong under the banner of conceptual art. Arguably, you could look back at John Cage's music, his writings and strange hieroglyphic musical notations, or at Cunningham's dances and his collaborations with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and see that they have at least a tangential relationship to what came to be called conceptualism. But if the phrase "conceptual art" doesn't mean that much, nor does "contemporary art". Soon it'll be old, like everything else.

Oxford's preposterous debate

A few days ago, I took part in a debate at the Oxford Union. The proposal was "This House believes that conceptual art is no art at all". Interesting or ludicrous, I thought, till ludicrous it proved. Rather than a radical re-reading of an avant-garde movement, the proposal amounted to thin stuff, and one that confused conceptualism with all sorts of other things: the YBAs, Fluxus, the opacity of contemporary art and art writing in general. It was in many ways a preposterous event. I probably made it worse when I stepped up to speak, by doing my version of Bruce Nauman's video performance piece Clown Torture — jumping up and down shouting No, No, No, No, No, as well as performing my Mark Rothko-Killed-Himself-Because-He-Met-the-People-Who-Bought-His-Art routine. But my team – me, critic Matthew Collings, artist Miroslaw Balka and the departing Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar – won anyway, by a landslide.

August, serious, intelligent, rigorous: the Oxford Union was a lot less gruelling than the Glasgow Empire on a Thursday night. What shocked me was not just the paucity of argument in the proposal, but the general cultural ignorance behind it, the unexamined prejudices, the kneejerk anti-intellectualism and cultural suspicion of contemporary art. I foolishly thought we'd gone beyond all that, and that an awareness of visual culture was, well, normal. That's the cloistered critic for you, imagining himself at the centre of the world. However many people one sees queuing for the Turner prize show, or wandering Tate Modern or the Centre Pompidou on a Sunday afternoon, the idea that the art of our time speaks to the wider public, and that people actually get something out of looking at it, might not be quite as true I might like to think. If Oxford University doesn't get art, who are the zombies in the art galleries?

The Stuckist Charles Thomson ranted for the motion, as did an otherwise perfectly sensible Oxford student, a smug New Zealander and artist Mark Leckey, who won last year's Turner prize. Leckey said he was on the philistine side of the debate because he hated everything the YBAs stand for. He wasn't against conceptual art but what he regarded as the pop version of it, and summed up by saying he was on the side of doubt – which of course I am, too.

I'm for ambiguity, nuance, the kinds of indeterminacy, sublety and open-endedness you get in Cage's music and in Cunningham's performances. Robert Rauschenberg once said he wanted to work in the gap between art and life: I can only celebrate that gap and the complications it brings. Doubt is difficult. Complications and contingencies mess with your head. They might not help you out of a crisis, but they are all we have. Keep dancing. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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